Friday, February 25, 2005

The New WKRP in Cincinnati

In the comments section below, it was asked whether there was a "New WKRP in Cincinnati." The answer is, yes, there was, and here's the proof. It picked up the story of WKRP several years after the original series ended; most of the characters had moved on, but there remained the three characters whose actors were still available: Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), Herb (Frank Bonner) and Les (Richard Sanders). Loni Anderson and Tim Reid made some guest appearances, and Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was a frequent guest. The only two actors from the original show who never appeared were, ironically, the two who were least in-demand: Gary Sandy was off doing regional theater and Jan Smithers was carving out her niche as the first and/or second Mrs. James Brolin.

The background of this misbegotten show was, of course, greed. "WKRP" was never considered a prestige project by MTM, which produced it. (Asked about it by a magazine, Mary Tyler Moore replied: "I wouldn't watch it.") When CBS cancelled it after four years and 90 episodes, it went into syndication, and surprised everybody by becoming the biggest moneymaker in MTM history: it did better in syndication than "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bob Newhart," "Rhoda," anything. For a while it was the top-rated sitcom in syndication or very close to it. It was the "Star Trek" of sitcoms.

Meanwhile, since the departure of its founder, Grant Tinker, MTM had floundered and basically collapsed, going from the number one producer of "quality TV" to a second-rate company just trying to stay afloat. In that spirit, the company hoped to get some more mileage out of its most valuable property, WKRP, by producing more episodes directly for syndication: the idea was not only to make money off the new episodes, but to add those episodes to the WKRP syndication package, which in turn would increase the value of the reruns (the one problem with WKRP as a syndication property is that there were so few episodes). Of course, that didn't happen; all syndicated reruns of "WKRP" involve only the original 90 episodes, and "The New WKRP," or "WKRP: The Next Generation," was forgotten as soon as it left the air.

As originally announced, Hugh Wilson, the creator of "WKRP," was supposed to write and direct the pilot of "The New WKRP." He pulled out of the project, though, and the executive producer of "The New WKRP" was Bill Dial, a writer on the original series (he wrote the "Turkeys Away" episode). The new characters he came up with were not much good; that's adequately explained in the piece I linked to above.

The biggest problem with the new series, as I recall, is that it completely misunderstood the style of the original series. MTM apparently thought that "WKRP" was a wild madcap farce about wacky goings-on in a radio station, sort of a broadcasting "Night Court." The original series was nothing like that, for the most part; it had a few farce episodes, but for the most part it was low-key, quirky, understated -- emphasizing character development and character interaction over jokes. The plots of "The New WKRP" mostly put characters in dopey farcical situations and tried to get laughs by coming up with gags to distract from the weak characters; the approach was the exact opposite of the original show. Sample plot from "The New WKRP": Mr. Carlson is accidentally hypnotized into thinking he's a chicken whenever he hears the word "Colonel." Unfortunately, that happens to be the day a Russian Colonel is visiting the station to learn about broadcasting.

The show was a modest success by the standards of first-run syndication, but it never made enough money to support the cost of a large cast, so it went off the air after two years. A few years later MTM got sold to a company owned by Pat Robertson. A happy ending for all concerned.

Speaking of WKRP, a writer for the show, Steve Marshall, once gave an interview mentioning two scripts he'd written for the original show, both from stories by Hugh Wilson (a hands-on showrunner who came up with many of the stories and rewrote many of the scripts), that got nixed by CBS. One was "Jennifer's Wedding," which would have seen Jennifer (Loni Anderson) getting married to one of her elderly boyfriends; the idea was to marry her off in that episode and have the husband die a few weeks later. The death episode got produced ("Jennifer and the Will"), but CBS didn't like the idea of a wedding episode, apparently believing it might hurt Loni Anderson's sex-symbol status or something.

The other script, which was very close to going into production and may actually have gone into rehearsal before CBS had them scrap it, was called "Another Merry Mix-Up." In it, Herb tries to impress some younger advertising clients by scoring some marijuana, only to have Johnny Fever tell him that the dealer cheated him: it's not pot, but oregano. The oregano finds its way into the office of a nervous Mr. Carlson, who is preparing for a meeting with his mother's lawyers. After much temptation, he decides to relax himself by smoking what he thinks is a joint -- and he winds up happy and confident at the meeting, psychologically bucked up by believing he smoked pot (even though he didn't). CBS's standards and practices department finally decided that they wouldn't allow a pot episode, even one where nobody actually smoked pot. But even in summary, that plot shows some of WKRP's strengths: humor based on characterization (Herb's combination of sleaziness and unworldliness; Mr. Carlson's combination of squareness and a desire not to seem completely out of touch with the times), and little misunderstandings rather than big farcical ones (the climax would have been a moment where something wacky doesn't happen). It was a good show.

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